Drum Roll

We were picked up from Gomez by another little Twin Otter, and, as neither of our other field sites had clear weather, were taken on a short flight south to Sky Blue to wait.

The runway at Sky Blue has to be one of the most spectacular in the world. A nunatak rises steeply to the north, and the katabatic winds that fall down off it sweep the snow from the glacier beneath, leaving a patch of blue ice, as solid as concrete but considerably more aesthetically pleasing. A runway is marked out on the ice with bright red bags, and where the snow begins again a few hundred yards away are a bright red fibreglass igloo and a small cluster of orange pyramid tents (two for living in, and one with a rough wooden board suspended above the 'turdicle', which needs no further description). Along the southern horizon more nunataks emerge from the broad expanse of snow.

The blue ice allows the wheeled Dash-7 to land as well as the ski-equipped Twin Otters. As the Dash can fly twice as far on a tank of fuel than the Otters can, and can carry four times the payload, it is vastly more efficient at bringing in fuel to the depot here. It only burns one drum of fuel for each drum it leaves behind - if the Otters brought it in, it would be four. It's quite a sight to watch the bright red beast fly straight in towards the mountain, losing height until it suddenly sends up a flurry of snow and brakes hard (not easy on ice) before it smacks into the unforgiving wall of rock in front.

The Dash was there as we landed, waiting to return back to Rothera, and poor old Alistair had to run across to catch his connecting flight. I was luckier, getting to spend a couple of nights there. It's quite a surreal place, a tiny oasis of manic activity whenever the weather is good enough for flying. The Dash doesn't like to hang around; it will skid to a standstill and in a few moments the door will be flung open, ramps laid, and 50 gallon barrels of fuel start whizzing down onto the ice. As soon as the hold is empty, any empty drums that have accumulated are stuffed back into the plane, and it's soon soaring back north across the nunataks again to Rothera.

The fuel can't be left where it is, as snow would soon accumulate around it, so it's dragged a 1/4 of a mile by skidoo, a drum at a time, to a depot where it is laid up. Each drum is turned up on end by hand - not easy when it weighs 200 kilos. It takes two people, with a specially designed lever, to do the trick.

Unloading the Dash, however, is the easy job. The Twin Otters that also drop by generally need refuelling from the depot, but rather than use nice freshly-delivered fuel, the policy is always to use the oldest fuel in the depot. This has been at Sky Blue at least a year, so is heavily snowed in; shovels and hard graft are needed to get them free, heaved over on their side, hauled across to the runway by skidoo, stood back on end again, and finally pumped into the tanks of the plane. Often the planes are delivering fuel to the depots further south, so the holds need filling with barrels too. Again, brute force is the only power used; three people rolling the barrel up the ramp while the pilot stands in the plane to help heave it the last little bit.

We must have shifted well over a hundred drums in the short period I was there. The Dash made two rotations from Rothera the day I arrived, and a record three the following day. I lost count of the Twin Otter flights, but two of the planes were back and forth quite a number of times, mostly running fuel to one of the southern depot.

At least there were plenty of people around to help. Liz was the madame of the establishment - a most unusual species, a female 'GA' as the field assistants are known. In addition Adam, a mechanic, soon arrived from Rothera on the Dash, and Mark, the GA who would be helping me at my next field sites, had recently flown up from depot-digging further south. The complement also included two artists, of all unlikely trades, who gamely doubled as skidoo drivers. Anne and Chris had come down to Rothera on BAS's 'artists and writers' programme, and had been bundled out to Sky Blue for a week or two to experience the real Antarctic. Stray pilots stopped by if they happened to end the day there; Mark on one day and both Mark and Nico the next.

It was good to have a couple of days to recuperate from digging, even if life at Sky Blue is pretty intense too when there is a lot of flying to be done. But we woke up on the second morning to the news that the weather at our next site, Dyer, was looking a lot clearer than it had done for a while, and we had soon loaded our plane and were winging our way northwards.